Shrewd as serpents, simple as doves


In the underrated film, Rocky Balboa, Rocky tells his son: “It ain’t about how hard you hit… it’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.”

William Wallace decrees: “And dying in your beds many years from now, would you be willing to trade all the days from this day to that for one chance, just one chance to come back here and tell our enemies that they may take our lives, but they’ll never take our freedom!” in Braveheart.

In The Return of the King, Aragorn tells his brothers in arms: “A day may come, when the courage of men fails, when we forsake our friends and break all bonds of fellowship, but it is not this day!  This day we fight!”

And Jesus tells his disciples at the very start of their ministry: “Behold, I am sending you like sheep in the midst of wolves; so be shrewd as serpents and simple as doves.” (Matthew 10:16)

Pep talks, inspirational words, meticulously crafted phrases designed to motivate, instruct and energize.  In literature, film and history examples abound.  So too do they in scripture.

This past Saturday morning, while considering the commissioning of the apostles in Matthew’s Gospel, the above noted line by Jesus stood out to me.  It comes within a monologue whereby the master tells his the disciples that their road ahead was about to become difficult.  That they would be rejected, struggle, even suffer.  I found myself wondering how those apostles must have felt in the moment.  They were departing life as they knew it, leaving behind professions, homes, possibly even family.  Something about Jesus compelled them to follow and here in the tenth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus was describing to them what they were in for.

Yet despite the predicted hardship, Jesus offered comforting words as well.  Words that would motive, instruct and energize.  He promised them that they would find the right words themselves to say when confronted, that they were not to try relentlessly in the face of rejection, that there would be a resounding light ahead at the end of the tunnel.  And by way of describing how they were to approach the task, he offered this advice:

Behold, I am sending you like sheep in the midst of wolves; so be shrewd as serpents and simple as doves.

At first blush, these seemed like contradictory terms.  Those who are shrewd are strategic, tactical, able to consider several moves ahead in the various forms of chess they find themselves playing.  And serpents seem devious, sneaky, complex… able to trick and manipulate.

On the other hand, doves are simple.  Innocent.  The opposite of serpents.

Doves and serpents are polar opposites.  Right?

Yet this is how those disciples were to be.  And as we so often conclude whenever Jesus instructed his closest followers, it is how we are to be as well.

Is it possible to be astute, prudent, sensible.  And straightforward, uncomplicated, plain at the same time?

I’ve been contemplating this over the past few days.  And thinking that the only way I know how to be both is to listen carefully to others, to thoughtfully and prayerfully consider the lessons of scripture, to seek inspiration from the lives of saints, and to make sure I follow the questions of the soul down deeply, to ponder them, and to be prepared to offer an explanation of how I myself would answer when questioned…

… while also surrendering to a trinitarian God who creates and loves, who serves and sacrifices, and who accompanies and guides.  This is a wheel I don’t need to reinvent, this is a quest I don’t pursue all alone, this is speaking a truth simply and with constant humility.

Shrewd.  And simple.  All at the same time.

What do you think?

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